Your first day in Thailand – especially Bangkok – can be overwhelming. No matter what time of day you arrive, your first step out of the Suvarnabhumi airport will be met with an oppressive, sticky heat. If you’re really unlucky it will be raining.
Bangkok is attempting to rebrand itself as the “City of Life” – and I think it’s an apt description. Underneath temples of incredibly beauty and glorious national monuments you’ll find stray dogs and cart vendors peddling questionable meats. Toothless old women smile radiantly at you alongside 10 year olds playing on their iPads.
A final note before we jump into the tips – Thais are predominantly Buddhist and a large percentage of them believe in fate. This is an important part of the Thai mentality to understand before doing things like walking across the street. Motorcyclists driving at Kamikaze speeds will not slow down – life and death has already been determined.
Now that I’ve gotten you all pumped up and ready to visit Bangkok, here’s my tips for enjoying (and surviving!) your first trip to Thailand.
Watching new visitors cross the street in Thailand is pretty hilarious. Mostly they just stand by the side of the road hopelessly looking back and forth and waiting for some compassionate Thai driver to slow down and wave them across. This rarely happens. On roads that are more than one lane across it never happens.
The proper way to cross the street is to wait for an opening and just go for it. While crosswalks with stoplights are honored, crosswalks with no stoplight should be viewed as mere recommendations. Thai drivers will not aim for you, but if you’re in their way they’re expecting you to move. Drivers will make only slight corrections to their path to avoid hitting you!
If it’s a big street and you feel uncomfortable, just follow a Thai person across.
Thailand is a tropical country – it’s always hot and it’s always humid. As soon as you step out of your cold shower – and you will grow to prefer taking cold showers – you’ll be sweating again. The only time you’re not sweating is when you’re in air conditioning or enjoying the temporary cold breeze after a sudden torrential downpour. Everyone is sweating, everyone knows everyone else is sweating, and yet I continue to be shocked by the lack of BO on public transportation. Expect to sweat and plan to take a few showers a day.
Also note that if it’s the rainy season, there will be puddles everywhere and you will undoubtedly step in something gross. If this bothers you (or you have open wounds on your feet) plan on bringing shoes.
Transportation throughout Thailand is terribly cheap. If you’re coming from a Western country and are used to public transportation being either extremely slow (buses) or very expensive (taxis) then prepare to be surprised.
I had the pleasure of staying at a great guesthouse (link at the end of this post) located near the Skytrain these past few days. Joy, the owner, recommended that everyone grab a BTS (Skytrain) ticket and just hop off whenever we saw something interesting. The Skytrain doesn’t go everywhere, but it goes to the shopping center (MBK) and through much of Bangkok center. It even gets you across the big river running through the city, the Chao Prayah. If you ever need to get back to the Skytrain, every cab and tuk-tuk driver knows “Skytrain” (but not BTS). Tickets run between US$0.50 and US$2.00.
Unless it’s rush hour (which in Bangkok is pretty much 7am-7pm), taking a taxi is probably the best way to travel. Taxis drivers in Thailand are required by law to run the meter – so make sure you request it. Some will say no. Unless you’re really tired, you can wait two minutes for one who will. Minimum metered fare is about US$1.00. A metered ride across the city (about 5 miles or 12 kilometers) will set you back at most US$7.00. A ride without the meter will be between US$7.00 and $20.00 – depending on how drunk you look.
The bus system throughout Bangkok is fantastic. Fares are around US$0.35 and there are about 100 lines throughout the city going just about everywhere. There are also so many buses that I’ve never had to wait more than 10 minutes at a stop! All buses have their roman number in big block lettering on the front and back so it’s very easy to find the right bus without knowing Thai. To flag one down at a bus stop, put out your right hand palm down when the bus is approaching. To board, jump on as fast as possible (the bus will only wait until you have your feet off the ground before continuing) and take a seat. An attendant will come around to take your fare and give you a ticket once you’re seated. If you are unsure where to get off, simply try your best to say the name of the location you’re going to the attendant and they’ll get your attention when it’s your turn to hop off.
Tuk-tuks and Motorcycle taxis
Don’t take them until you’re comfortable negotiating and taking buses, taxis, and the Skytrain. Tuk-tuks are expensive and the drivers are more likely to try and scam you than almost anyone else in Thailand. Motorcycle taxis in Bangkok are dangerous for the uninitiated.
Torrential downpours will happen.
If you’re traveling to Thailand you may have already heard about Thai Face. The simplest way to explain it is to contrast it with American (and in general, Western) values. Americans place an extremely high value on truth and honesty. If someone tells an outright lie or extends the truth, they will be “called out” on it. If someone is rude, others will be rude back to that person. Americans wear their feelings on their sleaves, so to speak. Thais, on the other hands, value social lubrication above almost everything else. Someone who is always happy and never reacts negatively will have a higher social standing. Put in to practice, if a Thai person doesn’t like you, you may never know as they will always smile and try to make your interactions go smoothly. This is less true in extremely touristy areas (like Khao San Road), however.
Thais tend to snap if they lose face when they are drunk. If you tend to be an asshole when drinking, don’t get too drunk and don’t be an asshole to Thais or you may find yourself in a 10 on 1 fight before the night is over. Pro-tip: you will lose.
Believe it or not, the friendly Tuk-tuk drivers around Khao San Road have met a few people from California before and they’re really not as interested in you as they seem to be. They also don’t have a former boss or an uncle living in California (though that San Francisco number they’ll show you in their cell phone is pretty solid evidence).
Thai people are extremely friendly and are happy to help you in any way they can. But just remember that sales people in every country are the same. Tell someone you’re from Switzerland or Luxemburg to see just how high the prices can go!
This is the classic Thai scam. If someone is trying to be extremely helpful and speaking English WAY better than you would expect someone driving a Tuk-tuk to speak – it’s probably a scam. The palace is not closed, it’s not a national holiday, and there is no secret Wat or marketplace with excellent prices for gems and tailored suits. And while I’m at it, that’s not Armani and Diesel jeans are not US$30.
Thai street food is fantastic. I’m constantly amazed by just how many vendors sell food along the street, especially in the non-touristy areas. From meat skewers to boiled noodles to fried rice – it’s all delicious. If you want meat, make sure the cart has high turnover or you’re dining before 1pm. While it’s probably fine, it’s best to be safe and avoid meat that has been sitting in the sun for a few hours. Everyone will understand enough English to get you your food without much trouble. If in doubt, “Khao pad pak” for vegetarian fried rice or “Khao pad gai” for chicken fried rice. Anything you get at a cart will be between US$1 to US$2.
Enough clothes for 5 days is all you need. Laundry services are cheap and plentiful (usually US$1 per kilogram or US$2 per pound) and safe. You can pick up your clothes the same day if dropped off in the morning and you can pick them up the next morning if dropped off in the evening.
Anything remotely valuable will probably be stolen. If you must take a bus out of Khao San Road and can’t go down to the southern bus terminal, then do one the following:
1) Remove EVERYTHING valuable from your luggage and bring it to your seat with you.
2) Buy two tickets and put your luggage in the extra seat. Considering a ticket for a 10-hour journey are about US$30 I’m happy to pay a US$30 tax to make sure I hold onto my thousands of dollars of electronics.
Tipping is appreciated, but 100% not expected. Some people will be visibly shocked if you try to tip them and may even reject it outright!
All about U-Baan Guesthouse
I stayed at U-Baan when I arrived in Bangkok because it was highly rated on Hostelworld and it’s not on Khao San Road. It’s right next to the Wongwian Yai BTS station and just about the only guesthouse in the area. If you’re looking to experience a Bangkok where people don’t constantly approach you trying to shake your hand and ask you where you’re going, then you’ll love this place. Getting to Khao San Road takes about 10 minutes by taxi. A 2-minute walk to the Skytrain and a 10-minute ride will get you to the MBK shopping center. I only wanted to recommend this place because it was BY FAR the best guesthouse I’ve been to for the price.
Good luck and have fun! Have any other tips you think people should know before visiting Bangkok?